Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Poem: The body elastic

The body elastic

On a day too hot to walk the asphalt
of the outdoor city, we maneuver
through the cool black of museum rooms
where human cadavers — preserved
in polymer — stretch and bend in elegant
leanness, all musculature and bone.

As I examine a half-skinned woman
kneeling on one knee, her other leg bent
and poised forward, toes pointed,
I touch the wave of my clavicle involuntarily.

Her breasts thrust ahead — full, nippled,
intact, sheathing her torso like a vest,
while the rest of her is naked muscle,
ligament, ribcage, spine, and behind

her sacrum the phalanges — still
fingernailed — trickling breezily from her
backward-flowing arms, curved
like the winged Nike of Samothrace.

The pointing finger of my splayed hand
supports the jugular notch of my sternum
while I lean toward the pink beltstrap
muscles of her neck. Her head arcs back,
eyes watching into stars to join the far-flung
head of her petrified sister, the Victory.

After the exhibit we emerge from the
museum’s stone passage into a sea of heat.
Trees stand masted and green against the blue
sky, and behind them the towering skyline
of man’s intransigence, where we are attracted
irresistibly, on the tide of our humanness.

Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

The exhibit we saw was "Body Worlds" by Gunther von Hagens at the Museum of Science and Industry. It was a transforming experience, to see bodies at various stages of aging, and organs in states of disease and health. Please go if it comes near you. The Kneeling Woman can be found here. This page shows where Body Worlds exhibits are and will be.


The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth, I like the objective observation of this, and the way you relate that plasticized body with your own.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Robert. When I left the exhibit, I wanted to be active, and to eat all the colorful vegetables I could get my mouth on.

erin said...

you make me laugh just here in your response to robert.

i don't know that i would be able to manage objective observation and then i turn to a letter from a friend who recently lost someone close and who went through this lovely humbling process. and yet i want to reject it despite knowing that i have a love affair even with the humility. i am drawn to it, the truth of it, knowing it knocks me off my block.

i can not imagine. is it true? are there cadavers? is there a box to check, yes, i donate my body to art. there should be. there should be.

you bring me to important places, ruth. thank you.


Shari Sunday said...

We had an exhibit like this last year at Museum of Science and Industry. Unfortunately, we missed it. Sounds fascinating.

Friko said...

von Hagens' probings into the human body, flayed and
laid bare to great depths find a wonderful echo in your words.

Your observations are clinical, totally without sentiment, without judgement.

I do understand about the need to consume life afterwards, though. I think no other comment on your part is needed.

Anonymous said...

After the exhibit we emerge from the
museum’s stone passage into a sea of heat.

amazing, wow.

ds said...

I followed the links you mention and found myself responding, physically, as you did: wanting to be sure of my own body, its pulse, its movement.

You treated this the only way it could possibly have been addressed, that is, objectively. As Friko says, without sentiment or judgment. To do otherwise would be to invite...

Connection to Nike is perfect. Thank you.

missing moments said...

Ruth, we saw the exhibit a few years ago when it was in Philly. (Actually, I've seen it twice!)
Such a remarkable exhibit. Everyone should see it!

Pat said...

This is an extraordinary exhibit - we saw it in Phoenix a couple of years ago.

I like how you bring your own body into the poem and walking into and exiting the exhibit.

Lil Coyote said...

so much to consider here;
the way you rushed away from heat and asphalt but later emerged now
seeing the colours of sky and tree.
how you left one world and fell like alice down the rabbit hole into another and so fully became a part of it.
and the fact that it was beautifully written.
and oh!! i so loved your comment to robert-it seems as important as the post.


amy@ Souldipper said...

Your ability to share yourself with the subject without interfering or distracting takes such talent. Thank you, Ruth. I had not been aware of this display. Now I really hope it comes my way.

Louise Gallagher said...

I saw the Body Worlds exhibit here -- it truly is amazing!

And your poem is beautiful. Very ethereal.


Greatly depicted

freefalling said...

We have a copy of his tv show Anatomy for Beginners sitting in our bookcase - Vince loved that show.

But they disturb me on a very deep level - I think it's coz when I was an adolescent I read a story by Ray Bradbury about a person's skeleton turning on it's "owner" - I've never been the same!

Ruth said...

erin, there is a distance that happens between the observer and the cadaver in this exhibit. I had to keep reminding myself that 'this was a person.' And yes, there is a box to check for donation. His primary purpose is education, he says, and all four of us were so inspired at the end, before we even walked out of the last room we stood talking about how we were going to change our lifestyles. To see inside what makes us move, feel, and function is a sobering thing, and I am incredibly grateful for the wake-up. And it's not that I'm not ready to die (though I'm not, in some sense at least), it's just that I want to live.

Ruth said...

Shari, I had heard about it years ago, when he first began, remembering a controversy, something about the donors not being donors. But everyone in the exhibit did donate their remains. Maybe you can see it one day. It is not gruesome in the least, at least to me.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Friko. It's funny in a way that this piece is so objective, after I felt utterly opened and alive after seeing the exhibit. But as you and others say, maybe it would have been hard, or unnecessary, or unwarranted to write it a different way.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Andressa. The swelter in Chicago on the weekend was a beast.

Ruth said...

Thanks, ds. There is controversy a bit. I read an article in the Journal of Bioethics about it, mostly about preserving the dignity of the individual, which von Hagens does, I think. Also, the writer wondered if there might be less expensive and 'entertaining' ways to educate people about health. I, though, found it incredibly moving. And something inside me shifted. If I were a smoker, seeing the lungs blackened by emphysema alone would have stopped me cold, and I'd have quit. Thank you for reading and liking my connection with Nike.

Ruth said...

Reena, good to know you were drawn to it a second time. To think of the effort, time and work involved is just beyond me. He does consider them art as well, and signs a card by each one, as you know.

Ruth said...

Pat, so glad you saw it too. Thanks for reading and your nice comment. I was quite moved by this work. I haven't gotten through reflecting on it yet.

Ruth said...

Oh thank you, Rick for such a lovely comment. Yes, the colors coming out, even the heat was OK, because I was alive, we all were. My growing grandbaby was alive in my daughter's womb. There were fetuses in the show, taken from an old exhibit in the museum. It's difficult to get your head around it, the lives lost. It's like I could get to the edge of it, but not quite plunge in.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Amy. Even though I was deeply moved by this work, I couldn't have written this differently, though maybe someone else could. It might be interesting to try it with a different voice. Perhaps from the perspective of one of the bodies, looking at these gaping spectators. It's one thing to donate your body to science (which I plan to do), where medical students will learn from this shell. But tourists, voyeurs, it's something to think about.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Louise. There are so many directions I could go writing after seeing this.

Ruth said...

Thanks and welcome, JAGDISH BALI.

Ruth said...

Hi, Letty! I didn't know about the show, so thanks. Yikes, that Bradbury sounds very creepy!

Susan said...

Real human cadavers, eh? Wow! I'm not sure I could have been as objective if I wrote about them. On one level, it sort of grosses me out, but fascinates me at the same time. I imagine that a lot of people have the same kind of reaction. Of course, as always, you found the exact right voice. Maybe I should take a few of my loved ones to see the smoker's lungs. Think that would stop them....finally???

Terresa said...

Bodies, The Exhibition, (a similiar show) has been a show in my home town here for years. A friend of mine went, and urged me to go. As life is, I meant to, then forgot.

Thanks, Ruth, for jogging my memory. And for sharing your experience so vividly. I'm nearly there in your words.

erin said...

there's a deep irony in this, isn't there, ruth? that we want to live so badly and yet we are always held back, always, at least a shade, from feeling that we are living enough. and so we press and press and things might become dangerous in subtle ways and so death looms closer and it is in this hand in hand with death that life earns her poignancy. isn't it ironic? and i wonder in this, why? what is it in the construct that makes it ironic? perhaps it is only our misguided desire in society to hold life and death so far apart. perhaps if we allowed them free reign we would simply be. do you remember Sabine over the river? it is in her. how i long to be so passionately, how i long to be.


Marcie said...

Such a powerful and evocative portrayal of your experiences seeing the human body isolated and in still motion..and that of the 'real' world beyond. I've seen the exhibit..and - yes - it's definitely something worth seeing.

Brendan said...

I'm so happy you found a cool glade out of the beat of the Chicago sun -- a strangely plush and divine one, given that the statuary here are preserved cadavers in various stages of anatomical undress. Odd, too, that the coldest science hinges the most ecstatic art of all, celebrating nakedness for more than what it is. I wonder if this is how the angels see us -- stripped down to the barest cables of our souls. Loved it, loved it. The contrasts are exquisite, and the self-recognition is a bonus. - Brendan

hedgewitch said...

At first read,I'm not sure I'm ready for that much baring of the soul's cage, that much nakedness. I look, though, a second time and do see the marvelous machines that we and all living things are,and it drives a barrage of thoughts about origins and purposes. Your words are if anything even more exact, more immediate, than the linked images. I doubt this exhibit will ever get to my benighted part of the world, but if it should, know your words will be the factor that has made me determined to see it.

Ruth said...

erin, I don't know why we can't live completely free, without reining in, but I know that I take pleasure in the tension between life and death, more so now than before, and that is partly thanks to you, and Rilke. I don't remember Sabine over the river.

You seem fearless to me. Yet I do not think that it is fear that holds me back. I watch, I sit, and I am not very active. This is something I know, and sometimes I want to change.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Marcie. I'm glad you've seen it, and with your artist's eye appreciated the bodies, as the beauty they are.

Ruth said...

Brendan, thanks so much for reading and responding this way. I celebrate von Hagens for the great work of getting down to the surfaces that are harbored in these bodies of ours, isolating each piece, cable (great word here), each lacy system. Oh the nervous system is beautiful, one of the displays, with those cords like sea coral flowing down into the limbs from the spine.

Ruth said...

Hedge, thank you for reading, and rereading. There is a loss, a risk, posting a poem about this exhibit, for those who have not experienced it. I wrote out of the deep movement I felt in response to it. I appreciate so much that you want to see his work as a result of my words.

Ruth said...

Sorry, Terresa, I didn't mean to skip you.

I do hope you will go to this exhibit when it comes to you again, or in another city you might visit. I think you would find incredible inspiration, as I did. And we would all benefit from your rich response to it, I predict.

Ginnie said...

My former boss, Jerry, used to work for the similar Bodies exhibition out of Atlanta, Ruth. Interestingly, I first saw the exhibit in NYC a few years back. I'll never forget it. I can imagine you writing a poem about the beautifully!